A solid foundation for prosperity amid challenges | Daily News

A solid foundation for prosperity amid challenges

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa inspecting an Organic Fertilizer Processing Centre at Bunnahepola  in Udubaddawa.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa inspecting an Organic Fertilizer Processing Centre at Bunnahepola in Udubaddawa.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reached a significant milestone in his Presidency last week, completing two years in office as the seventh Executive President of the country. It was a landmark achievement for the army officer turned President, who had no previous experience as a politician.

President Rajapaksa, among others, was mentioned as a potential candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the lead up to the 2019 Presidential Election. There were sceptics however who doubted his credentials, citing his lack of political experience as a drawback.

At this stage, the SLPP, although barely three years since its inception, was transforming itself into a formidable political force. At the local government elections held in 2018, it swept the board winning most local councils in the South of the country, except in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Around this time, it was becoming clear that the public’s experience with the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ Government was one of tremendous dissatisfaction. The 2018 Local Elections merely confirmed the growing public perception that the concept of ‘Yahapaalanaya’ had failed in its implementation.

Easter Sunday attacks

Governance of the country had descended to abysmal levels following serious disputes between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, culminating in the dismissal of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister by President Sirisena in October 2018.

Although Wickremesinghe regained office by virtue of a decision of the Supreme Court, the relationship between the duo had been irrevocably damaged. This in turn led to a breakdown at the highest level of Government which trickled down in the form of inefficiency, apathy and chaos.

This lack of governance and oversight manifested itself best in the Easter Sunday attacks of April 2019. The several inquiries conducted thereafter highlighted the lack of communication and governance that existed at the top of the security establishment at the time, enabling the attacks.

It was in such a context that Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared himself a candidate for the 2019 December Presidential Election. It was also necessitated because current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was debarred from contesting the poll under the 19th Amendment as he had already been twice elected.

The message that then candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa conveyed to the electorate obviously resonated with them loudly and clearly as he was elected with a resounding mandate, polling 6.9 million votes or 52.2 per cent of the vote as opposed to his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa’s 42 per cent of votes.

This mandate was further enhanced at the 2020 August General Election- held after it was postponed twice because of the Coronavirus pandemic- when the SLPP won 145 seats and a near two-thirds majority, an unparalleled achievement under the Proportional Representation system of voting.

Coronavirus pandemic

Presidential powers at President Rajapaksa’s disposal were strengthened even more when Parliament enacted the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. For this purpose, the SLPP was able to secure the support of eight Opposition Parliamentarians, thereby ensuring the required two-thirds majority.

Since then, over the past two years, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has had to contend with significant challenges, the most potent among them being the Coronavirus pandemic, a once in a century event that caught even most developed nations by surprise, crippling their well-resourced health systems.

COVID-19 vaccination drive.

President Rajapaksa’s initial response to the pandemic was to lockdown the country very early and it yielded rich dividends- Sri Lanka did not experience the kind of high death tolls and case numbers that were witnessed in Europe and the United States- and escaped the brunt of the first wave.

Being a developing country, it was not economically feasible to keep the nation in lockdown indefinitely. A re-opening of borders and a resumption of economic activity was undertaken. With this, a resurgence of the pandemic was inevitable with higher case numbers and deaths.

However, a major success story in dealing with the pandemic was the country’s successful vaccination drive. Although there were some initial shortages of the COVID-19 vaccine, a series of successful negotiations ensured that the country now has a high vaccination rate.

The President’s decision to entrust the task of vaccination to the military when the health system had difficulties in meeting the initial high demand had the desired effect. Most of the population received their vaccines in a relatively short period of time and had their second doses in a timely manner.

Since then, the President has had to perform the difficult balancing act of managing the health needs of the public with their economic needs. Although the country has seen over 14,000 deaths due to the pandemic, this is considered a relatively low number compared even to countries with similar populations.

Economic restrictions necessitated by the pandemic has meant that Sri Lanka’s economy has underperformed, particularly in the last year. This is only to be expected when vital sectors such as the tourism industry have been in virtual shutdown because of the pandemic, economists say.

It was in such a context that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa presented his maiden budget recently in Parliament. Although the budget was criticised for not offering immediate relief to the public, it was aimed at restructuring and reinvigorating the economy with a sustainable level of expenditure.

Development-oriented budget

However, 2022 promises to be a better year for the country’s economy. Most sectors have now reopened and are fully functional. The manufacturing sector is operational. The tourism industry is recovering, reflected in the fact that many foreign airlines are now resuming regular flights to Colombo. President Rajapaksa has been very keen to push ahead with his plans for an environmentally friendly Sri Lanka, pursuing a policy of banning chemical fertilizer and promoting organic fertilizer instead in a decision that has ignited controversy and even protests among farmers in some regions.

However, to the President’s credit he has maintained his policy based on the principle that while some initial hardships may be encountered, it is best for the nation, particularly in regions in which the high use of chemical fertilizer is thought to be responsible for diseases endemic to those areas.

Politically, the President has not been challenged significantly. The SLPP has remained the dominant political party over the past two years, ably led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Parliament. For all practical purposes, the party still enjoys a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

There have of course been differences of opinion within the ruling coalition from time to time. In one instance, some parties opposed the proposed sale of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. In another instance, sections of the party protested against the increase in fuel prices.

‘One Country, One Law’ concept

There has also been dissent from within the ruling SLPP as well. Most recently Justice Minister and National List Parliamentarian Ali Sabry was reported as being unhappy with the appointment of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera to head a Presidential Task Force on ‘One Country, One Law’.

However, President Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa have been able to allow saner counsel to prevail over such differences of opinion and take the ruling SLPP-led coalition forward without allowing these disputes to threaten the unity, survival or performance of the government.

Interestingly, the second largest party in the ruling coalition is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by former President Maithripala Sirisena. The former President too has from time to time aired his political grievances but the SLFP has, by and large, opted to remain as part and parcel of the coalition.

Over the next three years of his Presidency, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will have two tasks that take priority: enacting a new Constitution to replace the current 1978 Constitution and its 20 Amendments and conducting the long overdue Provincial Council elections throughout the island.

The proposed new Constitution is currently being prepared by a team of eminent legal experts headed by President’s Counsel Romesh De Silva. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is on record as saying that it will be presented to Parliament shortly. When it is, it is likely to generate robust debate.

Having command of the Parliament with almost a two-thirds majority, President Rajapaksa will be confident of enacting the new Constitution. Although legal challenges are likely, the Courts are likely to offer amendments that will allow the passage of the Constitution without requiring a referendum.

President Rajapaksa and the SLPP are also keen to conduct the PC elections without delay as it would strengthen these institutions which have been non-functional for a few years. Legal issues and the practicalities of having an election during a pandemic have led to the current impasse.

The fact that the opposition has been divided and less than challenging has been to the President’s advantage politically. The United National Party (UNP) has been rendered ineffective while the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya does not appear to have realised its full potential yet.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with no previous political experience, was handed the challenging task of guiding the destiny of the nation during an unprecedented pandemic.

He has prevailed and led the country on an austere yet safe path, providing hope for the three years yet to come.

 


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